Beijing's got clubs. Loads of them. Million dollar venues with expensive sound systems packed with foreigners and wealthy young Chinese drinking expensive bottles of bad whisky. You’ve got your Club Banana, your GT Banana, and your Coco Banana; China Doll and its semi-legitimate child China Doll 3.3; and drunk student favorites Mix and Vic’s. But if techno and back-to-back-to-back Fatman Scoop ‘Put Your Hands Up’ remixes aren’t your thing and you don’t want a depressing Sanlitun karaoke band, where do you go for live music in the capital?
Fortunately, while there aren’t many options, there are several dependable stalwarts that can always be counted on for honest live music by a wide variety of local and foreign bands. The music isn’t always polished, some lineups go down rough, while others leave you astonished, excited, and wanting more – but that’s what live music is all about.
The best place for punk music in Beijing. Located in Wudaokou D22 is an eclectic place with a clear mission – to bring real, raw, and unfiltered quality to its audiences whether it be in the form of punk, jazz, experimental noise metal, or weekly film screenings. Despite the international student neighborhood – the D22 website is available in English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese – D22 is a venue frequented by serious music fans of all ages. The owners have experience running clubs all over the world and are serious about music and film – I met co-owner Charles Saliba on the set of the movie ‘Kite Runner’ where he was serving as an extra, standing in the cold 12 hours a day, in the hopes learning more about the filming process. The best new Chinese bands from Joyside, to Hedgehog, to Carsick Cars can all be seen regularly at D22, thrashing through sets of new songs, enveloped by an oppressive cloud of cigarette smoke.
The D-22 weekly schedule
242 Chengfu Lu, Wudaokou
Half-way between Wudaokou Subway Station and Peking University East Gate
The Wudaokou station is on the Line 13
Located in the hip fun Gulou area the new Yugong Yishan is a powerhouse venue serving up music events nearly every night of the week. Occasionally they feature international acts – French band Air played two sold out shows there a couple of months back – but more exciting is the local talent they tirelessly feature. What distinguishes Yugong Yishan from the other venues on this list is the range of acts they present. Hip-hop nights including break dancing and DJ battles are followed the next night by a Chinese folk group, and an electro-pop act the night after that. Dorothy Adams indefatigably books and promotes everything from Beijing electronic artist Dead J’s album release to this year’s New Year’s Rock into 2009! party. The sound system is decent and the coat check keeps your outerwear safely way from cigarette smoke and spilled drinks.
Yugong Yishan 愚公移山
West courtyard former site of Duan Qirui Government, 3-2 Zhangzizhong Lu,
Take the Line 5 to Zhangzizhonglu
The Star Live
Not everyone loves The Star Live but the size of the venue and the booking power it has makes it the only place to see certain foreign acts. A block from the Lama Temple and across from Ditan Park The Star Live is on the 3rd floor of the building housing Club Tango – a favorite destination for techno-heads and foreign DJs – and a massive subterranean karaoke complex. Rapper Talib Kweli performed there with salsa/rock/hip-hoppers Ozomatli last October and the large (mostly foreign) crowd worked up a sweat dancing through both energetic sets. During his set Kweli invited a local rapper up on stage with him to spit some rhymes in Mandarin and this mix of styles and cultures exemplifies the Star Live approach. This New Years Eve sees a number of big club DJs bring in 2009, January 2nd is a hip hop night and the 4th is XF-Times Project which bring together a number of indie rock bands.
The Star Live 星光现场
3/F, Tango, 79 Heping Xijie (50m north of Yonghegong subway station), Dongcheng District
The Line 2 and 5 both stop at Yong He Gong – just one block from The Star Live
Located in the heart of Gulou, MAO Livehouse is another serious music venue. Behind a grungy bar area with graffiti covered walls lies a boxy, unadorned, concert hall with a decent sized stage and powerful sound system. Like The Star Live, ticket prices tend to run around 40-50 yuan and up but despite the occasional hip hop night the music is squarely, unashamedly, rock and f-in roll. Most of the acts are Chinese but there are foreign guests as well and this New Years legendary punk band The Queers (read more about the show here) will be tearing it up, supported by classic Beijing punkers Brain Failure and Demerit. Shows start at 830 or 9pm to the chagrin of those who like to mellow a bit between work and rocking out, but this may have something to do with their location in a residential neighborhood.
MAO Live House 光芒
111 Gulou Dongdajie,
Gulouright behind Nanluoguxiang and just east of the Drum Tower
It’s a little difficult to find 2 Kolegas, hidden as it is behind Beijing’s drive-in movie theatre, but it’s well worth it. 2 Kolegas proudly describes itself as ‘Beijing’s Hottest Dive-bar and Live Music Venue’ and that description’s not far off. The music runs from garage rock to folk and reggae. There is a lot of rock at 2 Kolegas – quality indie rock by Chinese and foreigner bands and touring acts often presented by Tag Team Records. The atmosphere is grungy and comfortable and there are often impromptu and sometimes unfortunate jam sessions going on. 2 Kolegas apparently means two good friends but it always feels more like a half dozen. Sometimes it seems half the people at this Chinese-owned bar came down to Beijing from the same city together. They’re friendly and welcoming and soon your new friend slips off the bar stool beside you to get behind the bar and serve you another drink.
The first time I went there I met a certain Mr. Longface, a tall Chinese with… a long face, whose claims to be a cellist who sometimes worked as a sushi chef in Haifa, Israel seemed completely manufactured. Yet, as the night wore every bit of the story was a verified – by his ‘brother’ who owned the place, by another friend from their hometown, by a dreadlocked Norwegian with perfect Mandarin and Spanish who’d spoken to Longface’s Israeli girlfriend earlier that evening on the phone.
Like Mr. Longface live music is unpredictable; you don’t know what you’re getting into or where it will go. Sometimes the guitars squeal like drowning cats and sometimes they ring together in harmony. That’s part of the joy of it, finding a new favorite band, an act you’d never heard of who speaks to you with their music. Chinese or foreigners, guitars or guqin, Mandarin raps or Mongolian throat singing - you never know what’ll find in Beijing’s dark smoky clubs but there’s a lot of good music out there and these are the places to find it.
2 Kolegas 两个好朋友
21 Liangmaqiao Lu, Nuren Jie
Inside the drive-in movie theater park
For more info on how to get to there and back
And more Beijing events
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